So it’s January 1st, 2021.
Every year since God knows when, I’ve spent weeks beforehand writing thoughts about the passing year to be published on the 31st of December.
Not this year.
The year 2020 was hard. The end of the year 2020 was hardest of all, and it’s still here, dragging on, its effects continuing.
— § —
Our second dog has been very sick this month, and likely won’t live very far into 2021. She had emergency surgery in early December to save her life, but in the process we found that she likely has advanced cancer.
She’s only four years old.
We lost our other dog not so long ago, the dog that had been with us since before the kids were born. Now it’s this one’s turn. It will be a long few months, or weeks, or days watching her decline.
The last three weeks have already been a decade long, and on this first day of the new year, their weight is massive.
— § —
Also massive is a new weight, one that’s been creeping up on me all year. I don’t know what to call it. It’s the weight that parents get as their children grow.
Some parents get it earlier, I think. I believe my ex-wife did. She used to tell me how she couldn’t cope with the empty house when the kids weren’t there.
I don’t experience it like that, exactly, but I know that I do and think irrational things when the kids aren’t here, like I don’t know what to fill the space with any longer.
It’s not about the material circumstances of life, it’s about the cognitive and emotional circumstances of life.
The kids are getting older. When they were young, they were a part of me. It was difficult to know where they ended and I began. Everything I did, I did with kids in mind, for a decade.
Now they are increasingly self-sufficient, and increasingly independent. They have their own thoughts and they can make their own sandwiches. This is right. This is proper and good.
But it leaves open the question of what I am, as apart from being a father. And the answer is that I don’t know any longer. I don’t even know what I’d like to be any longer, as apart from being a father. But life happens in stages, and this stage is wrapping up.
— § —
I’m sitting here on January 21st, 2021, at 9:00 in the morning, as just me. Kids are individuating. One dog is gone, the other dog is fading away. All of the old routines, which normally I think provide parents with some inertia—places that you go every summer, things that you do every week, and so on—disappeared in 2020.
The routine of things that you do as a family without thinking about them—that soothe the passage of time, that change glacially, that you do even though you can’t remember when or why you started—were wiped out in an instant this year.
We are starting from scratch, and in this from-scratch world, there are to be no dogs and relatively mature children that don’t need all that much from me.
I’ve been sitting here all week thinking about going back to work on the 4th after being off for weeks. I can’t imagine doing the work. I will, but at the moment, just three days prior, I simply can’t imagine it. The academic career that was my reason for existence for decades didn’t happen. I barely even noticed before, but I notice now.
Who am I?
What am I for?
What should I be doing with myself?
The world has lost millions of lives, and my own country has lost hundreds of thousands over 2020. I wonder how many selves were lost?
— § —
I tried “dating” again this year, which is not to say that I went on any dates, but I did reach out to a few people and do a few dating website things that led to a number of phone conversations.
Dating is not the answer.
These people are strangers. I don’t care about them, and I don’t want to care about them. That’s not where I am. There is no excitement. It’s not like when I was young, and I was interested and curious and perhaps a little too beset by anticipation about what might happen next.
I just don’t care right now. It’s an imposition. I found myself resenting the people I’d started interactions with. I found myself on a second or third phone call being unfairly angry at these poor women that I had to be on the phone at all, feeling as though I had better things to do, as though they were imposing on me. Even though I’d initiated.
And then I’d get off the phone and all those better things to do were nowhere to be seen.
— § —
Am I starting the year 2021 depressed?
Is this what depression feels like?
I don’t think so. I don’t feel any of those things they talk about in depression pamphlets (“no longer take pleasure in activities that you normally enjoy” and “don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better” and all of that stuff).
It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in activities that I normally enjoy. It’s that I have legitimately no idea what it is that I enjoy. The activities that I have previously enjoyed—scholarship, parenthood, wanderlust—are not available to me any longer. What ought to take their place?
It’s not that I don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better; it’s that I don’t know what better and worse are at this stage of the game and that feels a bit like being dropped in the middle of the desert with no map and no compass.
Which way to go?
Does it matter?
Surely it does! It may very well be that this direction over here leads to a city in just a mile or two, but 10 degrees off in either direction and you die of heat exhaustion within a day.
But the fact that there are better directions and worse directions reveals exactly nothing about what those might be.
You have no choice but to rotate blindly two or three times and then set off in some direction knowing that with 360 degrees on the compass, it’s more likely than not that you won’t select just the right vector for your march and will die in the desert, perhaps ironically having missed civilization by—at the start of your journey—facing just smidge too far to the right or to the left.
— § —
Dog is curled up in the bathroom next to the heater vent. I can’t tell any longer whether she feels well or feels terrible. I don’t want her to suffer, but it’s the nature of dogs not to reveal their suffering in explicit terms.
And when a dog has been through emergency major surgery leaving a 10 inch incision scar and then more than a vet visit a week for an extended period of time, wearing a cone and being somewhat groggy throughout as a matter both of recovery and of painkillers, all the habits and indications disappear.
She’s just curled up by the heater, full stop. Any deeper meaning is lost. Just like the kids, who have become more opaque, as kids do, when they get older.
I have spent my entire life as a man of the “deeper meanings.”
Now all I have is the surfaces of things. The cigar that’s just a cigar.
Some have described this state of life as being “simple” but I experience it to be anything but. It’s easy to make decisions and take actions when there are a hundred factors to weigh. You make a spreadsheet, cook up an algorithm, do the research. I’m good at that.
What to do when there’s nothing but the clothes on your body and the clock on your wall? When there are decisions to make but no particular factors to consider?
What I feel to start the year isn’t paralysis (as my ex-wife would no doubt describe it) or fear (as some of my friends would probably describe it), but rather a kind of solitary blind-deafness.
— § —
The year 2020 emptied life of so much content for so many people.
I am one of those people. Ten years ago I was a professor and researcher and author. My new daughter and first child had just been born. My wife was lovely, my dog was amazing, my favorite books lined my shelf. I lived in the greatest city in the world, knew dozens of people that I saw every day in my neighborhood, on the subway, and on campus, and I loved all of it and all of them deeply.
Now I don’t know what I do. I haven’t written recently enough to be an author. The daughter is a tween who increasingly wants to live her own life and frankly doesn’t need much from me apart from a loving word here and there, which I’m happy to give, but which leaves the vast majority of the day to me, where I sit in an office chair and look at a screen because I work from home in a digital industry that could frankly be any industry—the world would be no different. There is no wife. The dog is dead. I know my children and one or two distant friends, and that’s it. I live in an even more sprawling distant suburb of an already very sprawling western hub; the nearest human souls to me as the crow flies are those of my neighbors, whom I’ve never met (any of them, in any direction, despite having lived here for a decade now). They are dozens or hundreds of yards—rather than just a few feet—away. I don’t hear them through the walls; I’ve never heard them at all. Those favorite books sit dusty on a shelf and haven’t been opened in years. They lost their flavor once I was no longer an academic—once they were no longer relevant to my daily life and thoughts.
Anything part of my life as a New York academic—the one I built toward for most of my life—was swept away by this decade. Anything I’ve tried to build since then was largely swept away by 2020 itself. Things are startlingly close to tabula rasa.
— § —
The state of things for 2021 is “on the wrong track, choices and action needed.”
The question for 2021, more importantly, is: